As much as the NBA is about basketball, it’s arguably even more focused on providing entertainment for its fans. Therefore, NBA teams are situated across the United States (and a team in Canada) in order to appease fans in many major markets in the country. What that results in is a tightly-run schedule behind the scenes that requires extensive travel for players and team staff.
How much do NBA players fly? For the 2022/23 NBA season, the average distance teams will travel for NBA games is 41,000 miles; the average distance for the 2021/22 NBA season was 43,000 miles. The past two seasons are the lowest average distances since the league expanded to 30 teams. The regular season is made up of 41 away games for each team, which require travel to and from the opponent’s venue. The average round trip distance traveled for an away game was calculated as 1,000 miles in the 2021/22 NBA Season.
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How does the NBA manage the travel for teams?
The league is made up of 30 teams all over the United States, with one team, the Toronto Raptors, located in Canada. In a 82-game regular season, every team has to play each other at least twice, one of these games being at the opponent’s arena, which could very easily be across the country. To put it succinctly, there’s a lot of travel involved in a regular season. Too much travel means that players don’t get enough rest, which may result in fatigue and in turn affect performances negatively or even lead to injuries. On the other hand, the NBA’s fans are spread across the country (and across the world, although not quite feasible) and in order to please the fans, teams have to travel to all arenas for games. In the mix, the goal of the NBA is to provide an entertaining product that fans appreciate, meaning that the revenue is maximized.
Therefore, the NBA tries to appease the demands of each involved party. Firstly, the league is structured into conferences and divisions based on geographic location of the teams. The Conferences are split into Eastern Conference and Western Conference; within each conference there are 3 divisions, with 5 teams in each division (15 teams per conference). The divisions are grouped by teams who are in the closest proximity to each other: for example, the Pacific Division includes the Sacramento Kings, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Phoenix Suns. All 5 of these teams are located on the West Coast along the Pacific Ocean (except the Phoenix Suns, although they are relatively close).
The league’s divisional structure comes into play when they create regular season schedules. As a rule, a team plays 16 games against division teams (8 home, 8 away), 36 games against non-division conference teams (18 home, 18 away), and 30 games against non-conference teams (15 home, 15 away). Therefore, of total 41 away games that require travel, 8 games require little travel, 18 games require some level of travel but not significant, and only 15 games require significant travel.
The NBA further reduces travel by scheduling back-to-back games and “series” games. A back-to-back game means that a team plays 2 games in 2 nights. Therefore, the team can play 2 games in one trip instead of going back home and then returning for the next away game (home -> away city A -> away city B -> home). What the NBA often does is that if a team has to play 2 away games consecutively, they arrange it against a team that is nearby so that travel isn’t too significant. For example, in January 2023, the traveling Milwaukee Bucks will play the Atlanta Hawks and then the Miami Heat the next night; both the Hawks and the Heat are in the same division and are relatively close.
“Series” games mean that teams play back-to-back games against the same team in the same arena (only possible in division or conference play). For example, the Portland Trailblazers played on November 5th and 6th against the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix. Once again, this doesn’t require a team to complete another trip. The NBA has increasingly used this tactic, also known as no-travel games; the 2022/23 season will have 55 such instances. Another nifty tactic is to keep teams in the same city to play against two teams; this is applicable to Los Angeles (the Lakers and the Clippers) and New York (the Knicks and the Nets). So, a team will play the Lakers and then the Clippers back-to-back for example; this tactic will occur 33 times in the 2022/23 NBA season.
The reason that the NBA has been working hard to reduce travel is to keep players from travel-related fatigue and keep costs down. However, there are concerns that having an increased number of back-to-back games will be detrimental to players. With the use of load management (resting players who are otherwise healthy) soaring across the league, it reflects negatively on the league; for examples, fans pay for tickets to watch stars play but find out they are resting because coaches fear that all the back-to-backs and travel will result in an injury to their best players. This is something that the NBA is trying to eliminate, but the nature of the league and the regular season may make it nearly impossible, no matter how much travel is managed.
The next time you watch the NBA, take a moment to appreciate the hard work that players put in to make sure that you are entertained. Not only do these players have tough training and diet regimens, they also go through a grueling travel schedule, which makes just showing up an incredible feat in and of itself. The fact that players can even put up the type of performances they do on a nightly basis after flying potentially hundreds of miles a few hours earlier is a tribute to the elite level of the NBA players and staff.